When it comes to international relocations, both expats and the companies they work for tend to plan for relocations with less than 9 months’ time. In one way, that makes sense, as projects come up and people are needed to work on them as quickly as possible. Moving overseas is a huge undertaking with a long list of tasks to complete. Accomplishing all those tasks requires a team with a lot of resources and energy.

But just getting through the initial move does not ensure the long-term success of an international relocation. According to the Brookfield GRS Global Mobility 2016 Trends Survey, 18% of expats experiencing “notable difficulty” in adapting to their new countries and 15% (one of the top 3 challenges) were assignee and family adjustments. The reasons for failures, are as follows: 33% due to family-related issues, 18% due to choosing wrong candidate, and 18% due to failure to adapt. 

While companies generally do a good job of managing the logistics of employees’ international moves, most could do more to support their expats’ ongoing adjustment to their new environment, which can take more than a year. This is especially true when it comes to language training and adjusting (which is hard to do if you can’t communicate). Language acquisition can make all the difference in whether an expat completes a multiyear assignment successfully or heads home early — at great cost to the company.

Language Training Gets Overlooked

Global mobility services company Altair Global has studied international relocations and the factors that affect employees’ productivity when they move overseas. In Altair’s survey, 89% of employees said they took advantage of destination services/settling-in assistance that their employers provided. Only 8% of respondents said their company did not offer this kind of support.

However, Altair discovered something very different when it comes to language training: 43% of respondents said their company did not provide language training for them in connection with their move. And 53% said their company did not provide language training for their family.

Failing to provide language training is shortsighted, though. Language acquisition is enormously important in helping expats thrive both at work and in their personal lives.

The Importance of Fluency at Work

A common scenario we see is an employer failing to offer language training to an employee who already has a good level of fluency (B2) in the language of their new country. The employer might feel that the employee can get by “well enough” and that language training isn’t worth the time or money.

But communication difficulties are a big productivity drain even when the employee already has some experience with their second language. For example, if this is the first time the employee has worked with native speakers of their second language, they may have trouble understanding and being understood by native speakers. They may also feel too self-conscious to speak up in meetings or to strike up conversations with colleagues because of their accent. Unable to contribute to their full potential or to form connections with colleagues, the employee becomes disengaged and unhappy. That’s hardly a recipe for long-term success in an international assignment.

On the other hand, when an employer provides language training, it takes much less time for employees to become productive in their new language and to feel more at home around their native speaker colleagues.

Language Skills Build Connections

 Language training isn’t just important for work, though. How life is going for the employee, and, if applicable, their family, outside the office also factors heavily into the long-term success of their relocation.

More than half of expats report feeling symptoms of anxiety and depression. Those feelings can be especially hard to deal with if they don’t have burgeoning friendships in their new country to help make up for the fact that they have less contact with their support system back home. Language acquisition helps expats form that new support system more rapidly. As they gain fluency in the language of their new country, a sense of connection replaces feelings of isolation.

Language and cultural fluency can also ease stress for families living abroad. If only the employee (and not their family) receives language training, then they become the sole “point person” for most aspects of the family’s daily life — shopping, doctor’s appointments, parent-teacher conferences, you name it. Naturally, this stirs up a lot of frustration and resentment. But if everyone in the family learns the language and culture of the new country, then they’re better able to share the extra work of adjusting to the move.

With language acquisition so vital to expats’ success both at work and in their personal lives, Altair Global urges both employers and employees to prioritize language and cultural training alongside other forms of relocation support:

Encourage participation in cultural and language training in addition to destination services. Consider mandating cultural training for the employee and accompanying family. If cultural training and language training are not core components of the current international program, consider adding these benefits as core program offerings for all employees moving internationally.

 And we strongly agree. A successful international relocation isn’t just about finding the right house and the right school. It’s about becoming part of a new culture. And there’s no more powerful way to do that than language acquisition.

Micah Bellieu is CEO and Founder of Fluency Corp. She relocated to Mexico, and through this experience, started Fluency Corp to better support expats in regards to language and adapting.

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